Lent, purity of heart, and the limits of human reasoning

As this Lenten season draws to a close, I am reminded again that every Lent brings new lessons. Lent has been difficult- but the worthwhile sort of difficult, the kind of difficult that feels almost necessary. I have been through three Lenten seasons so far as an Orthodox Christian, and it has been interesting how the highlight of the season has been different every year.

st-gregory-palamasThis year I have been thinking a lot about St. Gregory Palamas. He was a Byzantine bishop from the 14th century, and in his time there was a controversy when the monk Barlaam of Seminara criticized the practices of the monks of Mount Athos. Barlaam was a rationalist; he contended that the contemplative prayer and mysticism of the Athonite monks was worthless, and that to know God they should devote themselves to learning and philosophy instead.  St. Gregory Palamas is celebrated for opposing Barlaam and defending Orthodox mysticism as practiced by the Athonite monks.

I have always found the Sunday of Gregory Palamas to be the most difficult of the Lenten commemorations to appreciate. I am both a Protestant convert and a scientist, and for these reasons, like Barlaam, my preferred approach to discerning truth is very scholastic- I read books, and try to deduce facts through logical reasoning. Orthodox Christianity  has a very different attitude toward understanding truth, and I am still figuring out how this fits in my life.

In this regard the story of Cornelius the centurion was really helpful to me. Cornelius was one of the first non-Jewish converts to Christianity. In the book of Acts he is repeatedly described as being very prayerful and generous to the poor. One day an angel visits him and tells him to visit St. Peter, where he learns the truth about Christ.

In Matthew 5:8 it says that “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. and the life of Cornelius captures the meaning of this verse well. This is also the essence of St. Gregory Palamas’ theology. It is not possible to know God through learning and reason, but if we purify our heart- repent of our wrongdoings, treat people with love and kindness- the Holy Spirit will work in our life, and we will be receptive when God reveals himself to us.

This contrasts rather significantly with how we determine through reasoning. When we use reason to solve a math problem, or to work through a logical argument, our”purity of heart”  doesn’t matter. In fact, a computer could parse through a logical argument without much problem.  Using reason, we arrive at an objective truth, independent of the character of the person performing the analysis.

I used to be involved in Protestant groups that really emphasized logical reasoning in determining spiritual truths. We would use the Bible as a set of axioms, and then perform textual analyses similar to what you would see in a literature or history class to figure out our theological beliefs.

The Eastern Orthodox approach to discerning truth is focused more on developing our spiritual character rather than our knowledge and logical reasoning skills. I had a hard time appreciating this facet of Orthodox Christianity until this Lent, when I realized that “purity of heart” matters for discerning scientific truths as well.

To do science well, you have to be willing to accept that your ideas are wrong when presented with evidence to the contrary. I have also found that the best scientists are the ones who treat other people with kindness and respect. Outsiders tend to view scientists as solitary people performing solitary work, but on the contrary, science is a very social activity, and the best science tends to emerge when many people work together. Thus a willingness to admit that you are wrong, a willingness to hear other peoples’ points of view, and a genuine concern for the well-being of your peers and subordinates are vital traits in a scientist, although they have nothing to do with logical reasoning. Of course, I have also met accomplished scientists who display none of those traits; but they are rarer than you would think, and I always get the sense that, despite their brilliance, they are not fulfilling their full potential.


If the pure in heart shall see God, then the pure in heart shall see God in others…

Patirarch Kiril of Moscow and All Russia, homily on February 28, 2010 (Sunday of Gregory Palamas)

Purifying our hearts in Eastern Orthodox practice is centered on repentance. I try to continually be turning away from my sins, rather than focusing on what other people have done wrong. Only when I am fully immersed in this attitude can I accept what God reveals to me: I suppose that God equips us to repent of our own wrongs, but not to fix other people’s sins. I feel that spiritual truths are revealed to me through my interactions with other people, and when I am not fully in an attitude where I am being loving and kind towards the people around me, or when I am focused on my own needs to the expense of others, I miss out on those spiritual truths. But learning to be humble, to be kind, and to be loving in this way is not something I can just “turn on”- it goes against my natural inclinations, and continual prayer is essential in developing a “purity of heart” in this way.

I am reminded once again of how much Orthodox Christianity emphasizes the unity of belief and action. I used to think that the connection between belief and action was one-way: if for your religious beliefs to be meaningful they have to  affect the way you act and how you treat other people. But this Lent I learned that the connection goes the other way as well. If I show love, compassion and generosity towards other people, and continually immerse myself in repentance and prayer, I am then able to understand truths that I would miss out on otherwise.

And I hope for the readers of this blog, that this Lent and Paschal season was a joy for you too. Christ is risen!







Christ the Bridegroom


For most of Holy Week, Orthodox churches display this particular icon of Jesus Christ, known as “The Bridegroom”. The name is taken from the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.

My copy of the icon came with an insert that contained a brief explanation of the icon.

As a husband is to his wife so is Jesus Christ to His Church. His Crucifixion is His marital vow and His mockery and beating His wedding feast. The Bridegroom icon shows Christ stripped of His garments and clothed in a scarlet robe to mock Him. He wears a crown of thorns, causing blood to flow from the wounds. A reed is placed in His bound hands as a scepter.

In Christ’s halo are the Greek letters for “I AM,” to remind us that Christ is the All-Powerful God who freely chose to experience pain and death. For the first three days of Holy Week this icon is placed prominently in the Church to remind us of Christ’s great love and great suffering.

This is one of my favorite depictions of Christ. I purchased my copy of this icon immediately after my first Orthodox Holy Week service. The church had a very large copy, close to a meter tall, and it made a very strong impression.

I was struck by this beautiful, sad, juxtaposition of joy and pain. The allusion to marriage is a strong one, and a significant part of this icon’s emotional power. Here is a picture of the crowns worn by the bride and groom in a Greek wedding. Note the similarity to Christ’s crown of thorns:

This icon’s reference to the parable of the ten virgins is a warning against complacency. We have to prepare ourselves to follow Christ, to love and sacrifice as He did. To neglect this preparation leads to our destruction.

Thus in our Lenten journey, in our marriages, and in our Christian lives, we have to learn to be patient, to set aside our wants and desires, and to suffer deeply for the sake of those we love. What a perfect message to close out the Lenten season!




The Great Canon of St Andrew


The Great Canon of St Andrew (text here) is a long liturgical prayer that appears twice in the Lenten liturgy. We say the canon in four parts in the first four days of the Lent season, and then the whole thing is celebrated at once on the Thursday of the fifth week.

The great canon is the foremost prayer of repentance in the Lenten season. One distinctive feature of the text is is how so much of it covers passages in the Bible where God’s chosen people have fallen into sin, from the famous stories of Adam and Eve, David and Bathsheba, to obscure ones like that of Lamech. There are also plenty of mentions of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint famous for turning away from her wicked life.

I love this prayer. We get a reminder of how brutally honest the Bible can be about the failures of its greatest heroes, and how futile it is to try to attain moral perfection without Christ. The Great Canon does not allow us to look upon the stumbles of these people and think ourselves superior to them. Rather, in referencing these stories it forces us to confront the wickedness in our own life. Here are some typical lines:

Noah’s son Ham failed to conceal his father’s nakedness, and even dared to look at him in his shame. And you, my soul, in your treatment of your neighbour have imitated him.

Like the arrogant Israelites in the wilderness, you prefer the comforts of Egypt and unclean food to manna, the food sent from heaven.

Solomon was carried away by gratification of his lust. Alas, he who loved Wisdom now makes love to prostitutes and finds himself estranged from God. But in your misery though you have imitated him, O my soul, through your disgraceful love of luxury.

But given that so many people mistakenly think that Lent is about guilt and self-loathing, I will emphasize that the point of this prayer is to lead our heart towards repentance, and the larger theme is one of hope for the desperate who have nowhere else to turn but toward God.

With my whole heart, I cried unto the compassionate God,
and He heard me

I know You as a clam haven from the storm of transgressions, O Christ my Saviour. Protect and deliver me from the depths of my innermost sin and despair.

Accepting voluntarily to be nailed to a Tree, You accomplished salvation in the centre of the earth, O Creator. Eden, which had been closed to us is open again, and all of creation, both in heaven and on earth, is saved and worships You.

The Great Canon of St. Andrew is one of the most beautiful parts of the Orthodox Christian liturgy, and an indispensable feature of Lent. It compels us to turn away from judging the misdeeds of others, and to instead grieve deeply for our own brokenness. The canon reveals the hopelessness of our attempts to “fix” ourselves and instead draws us toward renewal in Christ Jesus, for salvation is found in no one else.


Judging others

One of the most tiresome arguments that I have seen play out in Christian circles is about judging other people’s sins. There are a number of clear prohibitions in the Bible about judging other people’s sins, but often Christians feel compelled to dilute this teaching due to “practical” considerations.  We say that it is necessary to “hold people accountable”, or to “affirm God’s moral law”. According to this logic, to not judge people at all is to succumb to “moral relativism”.

Often the conclusion to this argument is that it is appropriate to judge other people’s sin, as long as the judgment is “appropriate”. This has always seemed to me a rather worthless qualifier.  After all, everyone who passes judgment on another thinks the judgment is “appropriate”!

A message that comes through loud and clear in the Orthodox lenten season is a prohibition against judging. The services of the Lenten Triodion (the lent liturgy book) begin with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which focuses on Luke 18:10-14:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”



We also say this prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian in our morning prayers all throughout Lent. This prayer ends with these powerful line, spoken twice:

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own sins and not to judge my brother.

Every Sunday (even outside of Lent) we read this pre-communion prayer of St. John Chrysostom. It begins as follows:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief…

So every time I participate in the Sunday liturgy I declare myself “the chief of sinners”. Is this literally true? How do I answer that? How can I speculate on the spiritual state of another person? But if St. Paul can call himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15) then so can I.

These liturgical elements hint at the reason why judging is dangerous. In Orthodox Christianity, we think of salvation not just as a moment in the past, but also in the present tense as a process of restoration, of a continual turning away from sin and towards God. The proper response to hearing the Gospel should be a revulsion at our own wickedness, and a desire to repent. What folly it is to look at the word of God and decide instead that it proclaims oneself righteous and condemns other people!

We learn a lot about the dangers of judging others in the words and deeds of early Christians, particularly the desert fathers and mothers. One very celebrated story is that of St. Moses the Ethiopian:

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

There are also several warnings against judgment that affirm James 4:12, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” Consider this celebrated story about the desert fathers is that of St. Isaac the Theban:

An angel appeared before Isaac and presented before him the soul of someone who had just died.  “Here is the soul of a person you have judged,” said the angel.  “Where do you order him to be put, into the Kingdom or into eternal punishment?  Since you want to judge the just and the unjust, what do you command for this poor soul?”

Frightened beyond measure, Isaac spent the rest of his life praying with sighs and tears to be forgiven of this sin.  He had seen the seriousness of judging another.

What about practical considerations? Are there times when we are compelled to speak out when someone else is doing wrong? St. Macarius, another of these early Christian ascetics has this to say:
Abba Macarius went one day to Abba Pachomius of Tabennisi. Pachomius asked him, ‘When brothers do not submit to the rule, is it right to correct them?’ Abba Macarius said to him, ‘Correct and judge justly those who are subject to you, but judge no one else .
When these acts of correction are necessary, they are the purview of those in the church of spiritual authority. As a layperson, especially as one very new to the Orthodox faith, I can get along fine by not judging.

To end this post, I want to share a conversation I had with a priest in the United States. He was appointed to an “ecclesiastical court”, responsible for dealing with misconduct among clergy in his diocese. This priest is one of the wisest men I know, and yet he said he did everything he could to refuse this appointment. He said to be compelled to judge another person in this way (even in this very important and necessary role) put him in great spiritual peril, because he himself was an unworthy sinner. May all those few who are put in this unfortunate position have this same attitude!

Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann

The Lenten season is meant to kindle a “bright sadness” within our hearts. Its aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this relationship. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection.



Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press) was a Godsend of a book. My first encounters with Orthodox lenten practice were rather challenging. There were all these dietary rules, new services,  new prayers, and new church music, and I did not know how to make head or tail of it. This book does a wonderful job explaining the meaning of the traditional lenten elements, and brought their beauty to life.

The book covers with great detail and clarity both the theological and practical aspects of doing Lent well. There are thorough explanations of the liturgical practices, line-by-line analyses of some of the prayers,  and down-to-earth advice on maintaining a correct attitude toward lent. Deep theological concepts are explained with remarkable simplicity. A layperson or a  non-Orthodox Christian will have no difficulty understanding most of the text.

This book should be compulsory reading for Orthodox Christians during this season. I also think it has some benefit for non-Orthodox who wish to understand the significance of traditional Lenten practice a little better. I will not talk at length about it, because the Antiochian Orthdox Archdiocese of North America has made long sections of the book available on their website for free.

May this “bright sadness” be kindled within your hearts in this season of Great Lent.